(Note: This article pertains mostly to single mamas who were unmarried at the time that their children were born, and the custody challenges they may face as a result. Divorce-related custody issues are a whole other beast, for which my knowledge is extremely limited at this point. If you’re a divorced single mama, I would be curious to hear about the personal challenges you’ve experienced and your ideas on how we can make improvements to the system. Please feel free to drop a line in the comments.)
I made a rather general resolution as we rang in 2018, to complete that big transition from “surviving” to “thriving.” This would be an umbrella concept under which I could organize all the minutiae of items on my great ‘To Do’ list for the year. All those things that I had kicked down the road back in 2017, The Year of Great Chaos, as I’ve labeled the chapter in my personal history book. The dental appointments, the tax paperwork, the credit freeze, the redux of a dating profile that hadn’t been updated since I lived as a childfree cat lady in a sweet San Francisco studio.
At the very top of the list, my plan was to file custody paperwork so that my daughter would have something official “on the books.”
The Importance of Filing
As you are probably already aware, child custody laws vary from state to state. In some states, before a custody agreement is put into place, the mother of the child is presumed to have full custody. In my state of California, the mother and father of a child have equal custody unless or until the matter is resolved in court. This applies in the event of separation pending divorce, or if the parents were never married but the father signed a statement of parentage upon the child’s birth (generally standard procedure at the hospital if the father is present).
It is of paramount importance that the parents cooperate and collaborate together to ensure the least amount of chaos for the child as the family adjusts to their new dynamic. But what if the parents aren’t able to get along or at least agree on a temporary arrangement? Hypothetical (and completely terrifying!) scenario: A father could decide to take his child out of daycare and simply not return the child to its mother. Since both parents have equal rights, law enforcement will not get involved and it does not count as a parental abduction. However, the judge would look disparagingly upon the offending party once the case is brought to court, and it would have an impact on the final custody arrangement. There is also such a thing called an Ex Parte hearing for temporary custody. A parent can request this order, but they must then prove to the judge that the child is in immediate danger of physical or psychological harm by the other parent. This is put in place as a stop-gap solution to keep a child safe in the interim before a case goes to mediation or trial.
Conversely, sometimes a mother will prevent a father from seeing his child or re-establishing ties after an extended absence by hiding the child’s whereabouts and cutting off communication. This can happen even when a father has shown an active interest in being a part of his kid’s life. It can be a heartbreaking scenario all around, which is why it’s of vital importance to establish custody for everyone’s piece of mind. It’s also important for both parties to remember not to engage in the pre-mediation tug-of-war with their child. Any action that they take in the heat of the moment may have lasting legal effects.
Roadblocks and Challenges
After some initial back-and-forth and your standard amount of squabbling, my child’s father and I managed to agree on a schedule of visitation that works for us. Our plan was to request mediation and in my naivety, I thought I could just head down to my friendly county courthouse, pick up some forms, fill out the request, and sign on the dotted lines after meeting with the mediator and explaining our arrangement. I’m laughing as I type this, that I thought it would be so simple and that a county agency would be so efficient, fair and flawless! Instead of expanding on the myriad roadblocks I encountered without legal representation, or pointing out the absurdity of a public courthouse charging $2 an hour for parking (oops, I just did!), I’m going to focus on one aspect of this situation that reminded me that the way the justice system works depends largely upon your socioeconomic strata and ability to pay our good old Uncle Sam.
…When I was informed that there would be a filing fee involved to submit my paperwork, I was thinking it would be around $50. What I was surprised to learn is that the initial filing fee is $435! To petition the court for custody of my own child. And my child’s father would have 30 days to respond with his paperwork and a check for $435 as well.
I’ve learned that there’s not much you can do to get around this fee, but under a few circumstances you can file a request to waive it. Let’s say you’re a mother who heads a household of two – you and one child. You can file a Form FW-001, but either your monthly income cannot exceed $1,714.59 or you must account for all wages and expenses proving that you have to spend as much or more than you currently earn each month. Let’s say you work full-time to support your family of two. You would have to be making $10.72 per hour at 160 hours per month to qualify without question for a fee waiver. This is less than the minimum wage in California. So unless you’re dirt poor, unemployed, or making just enough to scrape by, filing for a custody arrangement is going to cost you money $$!
Finding an Attorney
Should you decide that your case is complex enough to warrant legal representation, of course the fees can go up precipitously. So exactly how much can you expect a lawyer to cost? It goes into the thousands of dollars, but there’s no easy answer here since each custody case is unique. Here is a very helpful Thumbtack article that goes into the various scenarios. Your total cost will be affected greatly by a number of factors such as whether it’s a contested versus uncontested case, or if it’s a tricky case involving issues such as domestic violence or interstate conflict.
There are lawyers who offer free initial consultations but in my experience, most will charge a fee such as $150 for an hour-long consult. The best way to go about this is to pull up Yelp and let your fingers do the dialing. And keep calling until you reach somebody who is willing to take the time and listen to your story. Once you’ve found that lawyer who is willing to take fifteen minutes out of their busy schedule to assist you free of charge over the phone, you’ve hit “Gold!” So be sure to keep it super cogent and concise. Get straight to the point with a very brief history of your situation, your goals for custody and support, and the challenges you anticipate with the case. It’s not that these lawyers don’t care, but you’ve got to remember that they are extremely busy and their schedules are precisely time blocked. They hear stories like ours all day long, so I’m sure they appreciate a prospective client who is able to cut through the emotional hullabaloo (haven’t used that word in a while!) and get to the crux of the matter.
If you’re just at the jumping-off point of this journey and you’re getting discouraged, it’s important to remember that there are other “live” resources you can turn to as well. Besides cold-calling lawyers, there are non-profit agencies that can be a wealth of information.
Child Find of America was traditionally founded to combat child abduction. They started those milk carton “Have you seen this child?” campaigns of yesteryear, but their scope has since expanded to include assistance on matters of co-parenting and mediation, deciphering the court system, resources to build parenting skills, and much more. They were one of the first resources that I stumbled upon, and they remain one of the best. They can be reached at www.childfindofamerica.org or better yet, give them a call:
800-716-3468 (New York time zone).
This is what I’ve learned so far and I hope it has been a little informative or enlightening, depending upon where you are with your own custody case. It has certainly been an eye-opening journey and I’m learning so much as I go along. My continued goal is to shed a little light on this experience as I go through it. The law can be at once a fascinating and frustrating beast. At times, I have come to the point of hating our government with a fiery passion, but I’m trying not to get jaded over here… You should have read my first version of this blog entry.